"How do you think I'm going to die?" asks Penn Jillette, "the larger and louder half" of Penn & Teller, at the start of Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales, a book that is every bit as mesmerizing and captivating as the duo's live show.
In fact, Presto! reveals the greatest disappearing act of Penn's 40-plus-year career. Not "The Vanishing African Spotted Pygmy Elephant Act," in which make the duo make a cow dressed like an elephant go poof. This is the trick by which the 61-year-old, who once topped the scales at over 300 pounds, lost one-third of his body weight in a five-month span.
Penn details his diet regimen as laid out by Ray Cronise, a former NASA scientist and entrepreneur who pushes an extremely restricted plant-based diet (essentially, veganism but with little-to-no added salt, sugar, oil, and fat). Like Penn's old "fat fuck" body (his term), Presto! contains multitudes—it's less a diet memoir than a wide-ranging meditation on contemporary American culture and politics, including the 2016 election.
It's also Penn at his very best. Even as he is discussing the life-threatening health conditions that led him to his new eating plan, he's never a page or two away from commenting on how Hillary Clinton is the absolute worst nominee for president…except for Donald Trump, with whom Penn appeared for two seasons on Celebrity Apprentice. "Eating pizza is voting for Hillary," Penn writes (he means that as an insult), while Donald Trump's hair resembles "cotton candy made from piss" (the billionaire's personality is even more off-putting, says Penn). Presto! is filled with anecdotes not just about weight loss but about the loss of loved ones, hosannas to the friends and artists who have inspired Penn over the years, and a tender-yet-barbed condemnation of what he calls "the Standard American Diet," or SAD.
Reason's Nick Gillespie recently sat down with Penn Jillette backstage at Vegas' Rio casino, where Penn & Teller have been in residence for years. The conversation ranged from the 2016 election to what it's like to eat only potatoes for two weeks straight to why Bob Dylan—"he's a freak, not a cheerleader"—is Penn's artistic hero.
About 45 minutes.
Produced and edited by Meredith Bragg. Cameras by Jim Epstein, Austin Bragg, and Justin Monticello.
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This is a rush transcript. Check any quotations against video recording.
NICK GILLESPIE: Hi, I'm Nick Gillespie with Reason TV, and we are in Las Vegas talking to Penn Jillette, the great magician and demystifier of all things in American culture and world culture, including weight loss, which we'll get to in a second. He's got a new book coming out: Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales.
Penn Jillette, thanks for talking with Reason.
PENN JILLETTE: Oh, thanks for wanting to!
GILLESPIE: And when I started as a professional libertarian 20 years ago, you and Drew Carey were the fat fucks and I was skinny.
JILLETTE: Yep, yep.
GILLESPIE: And now you guys are skinny and I'm the fat fuck.
JILLETTE: Yeah, yeah
GILLESPIE: So thanks a lot for that.
JILLETTE: That's the way it goes, you know. Seasons change, and so did I. *laughs*
GILLESPIE: *laughs* You know, you have been outspoken about Donald Trump and about Hillary Clinton. You were—In 2012, you supported Gary Johnson. Now, you –
JILLETTE: I don't feel your Bern. Feel my Johnson.
GILLESPIE: That's right.
JILLETTE: That's the slogan.
GILLESPIE: And you, for a while, you talked about how you liked Bernie Sanders. You found him refreshing—
JILLETTE: Not for a while.
JILLETTE: I was given a very specific job. I was told, "Watch all of the candidates announcing, and critique the videos they put out." I was kind of told to do this just on the videos. And the only person who spoke about policy at all, and the only person with the slightest shred of humanity was Bernie Sanders. So it's very clear that I disagreed with him on everything, but at least he was a human being.
GILLESPIE: In a story in Newsweek, and you also kind of talk about this in a recent issue of Reason, you said, as an atheist, you got on your knees and prayed for a politician that who would be authentic.
JILLETTE: Yeah, and I believe–
GILLESPIE: And God smote you, because Donald Trump is…
JILLETTE: This may be a little solipsistic and narcissistic, but I believe what's happening in politics right now is strictly to punish me.
JILLETTE: There's no other reason. I really thought there could be no one worse than Hillary Clinton, and there is no one worse than Hillary Clinton except Donald Trump. And I also, you know, what we want…we've got a tremendous amount of stuff out of Donald Trump that is really, really good. We've got absolute proof from Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump that Citizens United did not destroy our system. The two candidates with starting out with the least money did fabulously. Jeb Bush was the one who wins, and it comes down to Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton if Citizens United destroyed our whole—It didn't and, we have proof of that! I mean, just absolute proof! I don't even know why people even mention it anymore. We've got proof of that.
GILLESPIE: Well, I think they're mentioning it less and less, right?
JILLETTE: Well, no. I have friends who just go, "Until you get the money out of politics, we haven't got a chance." And they just repeat that like a mantra, and although Jeb Bush and Bernie Sanders tell you everything you need to know about that.
JILLETTE: And the other thing is, after all the Bush and Clinton, I would have told you, I mean if you would have talked with me three years ago, maybe you did, I would have told you, maybe I did, I really wanted someone who—and this is a horribly overused word and I guess I'm going to use it—someone who was authentic. Someone who was in some way honest. You know, you want to be careful but honest, and once in a while waffled on issue and once in a while shrugged, and who had some sort of emotional stuff and it was all so sterile. I wanted to get a little bit out of Steely Dan, a little bit of the punk rock, you know? Have all that happen. I would have told that a thousand times, and Trump ticks every one of those boxes. And I didn't add the important thing: Oh, and with a brain in his head and not a racist. *laughs* I just thought that was all that mattered.
GILLESPIE: Talk about—I mean you were on two seasons of Celebrity Apprentice with him.
JILLETTE: I did two tours of duty.
GILLESPIE: And from what I understand, the turning point of your relationship with him is when you discussed or described his hair as being made of cotton candy made of piss.
JILLETTE: I said it looked like. I didn't ever claim it was made of piss. Looked exactly like cotton candy made of piss. I'm not sure that was the turning point. The turning point actually…In those wild times of no sleep and pretending to be part of something that is not really happening. I mean, we're co-workers on a television show. He's not seeing if he's going to hire me. He has no job. The places he could hire me—the casinos that he has that have showrooms—he put into bankruptcy.
JILLETTE: He no longer owns them. So, he can't hire me, plus I have a job, so that's all completely fake, right? But during the time, it's not Stockholm syndrome, it's actor's playhouse. You get yourself—it's an improvisational, five week improvisational show in which you've decided that he is the boss and you are the employee, and you do that—
GILLESPIE: So this is like the Stanford prisoner experiments?
JILLETTE: A little bit, a little bit. More like that than like entertainment. So during that time, I know Donald Trump's lying about a lot of what happens, but I also know that I'm also not correct because everything gets jumbled together. But there was a time when they asked me while I was still on the show if Donald Trump ran for president, if I've support him. And I said absolutely not, and I believe—and this may be the most damning thing you'll hear me say about Trump—I believe I liked him more than anyone else who was on that show. During that time I said I would not support him for president. Now, I get a call instantly—instantly!—from the powers that be, not Trump himself, saying, "No, no, no. You must support him as president." They say "It's going to come down to you and Trace [Adkins], and he's going to want to know that you both support him for president." And I said, "Well, I don't" And they said, "Well, you have to because he's trying to—he's looking at the big picture here." And I go, "We're on a television show."
So, I was told when I said I wouldn't support him for president that I would not win, and if you watch the final show—and don't, why would you—he says, "You're being judge on the quality of your ice cream, the quality of your final presentation, how much ice cream you sold…" He gives a whole list of the criteria. And then he says, "Penn, you did the best ice cream. You did the best—" And he checks them all off that I've won every category. Oh, by the way, Trace wins.
Now, the Walgreens people were very upset by this because they wanted to sell my ice cream and do a whole thing. And NBC was upset by this. They're both so upset as a matter of fact, that they gave money to my charity kind of under the table, so I actually ended up making more for my charity than Trace did.
JILLETTE: Because of kind of guilt money going in. They were very upset. I was not because the rules of this show are that he decides who wins, and there's no other little, you know—as a libertarian, we care very much about the rules. We really do. And if you and I are playing the game, and I have decided when I go in that whatever you say goes and you say something, I'm not allowed to say, "That's unfair!" There cannot be no unfair. I would also like to say about Celebrity Apprentice that… I am a terrible, terrible chess player. I'm horrible. But I can sit here with you and tell you what the rules to chess are. I can tell you what the rules to Texas Hold 'Em are. I can lay those out to you. I did two full professional runs of Celebrity Apprentice and did very well, and did as well as you can do and still be a failure, and yet I can't tell you what any of the rules are. *laughs*
There is not a game being played.
GILLESPIE: Is that what you—I mean, would a Trump presidency, which ultimately is unlikely, but is that one of the things that worries you about it? It's like, we would be in an America with no clear rules, although he would get to decide them.
JILLETTE: Not going for a joke and just trying as hard as I can to tell the truth… I think he doesn't really have strong convictions and sense of right and wrong. He's not really, really smart. He's not stupid, you know. He's not a dumb guy, but he's not smart like presidents are smart. We make jokes—Everybody's makes jokes except me about George W. Bush not being smart. He's smart. He just is. Obama's smarter? Probably, sure. Obama's smarter than Clinton? Probably. Almost certainly. But they're up here, you know, and if we're talking about it, you know…You're wherever you are, but you're not smarter than Obama, you know. None of us are. Even the smart guys you know aren't there. And Trump isn't one of those people. He's not someone who when you're having a conversation with him—I probably listened to him talk for, I don't want to exaggerate, but probably eight or nine hours. A monologue of Trump. And I can't think of one thing he said that I went, "Oh yeah!"
Now, try to think of someone in your life that could talk for eight hours—Now, be it it's on TV and it's to be chopped up and put on there, I'll give you that. He's not trying to be particularly profound, though he seems like he was. That's not true for Obama. I don't think Obama could talk to you for fifteen minutes about any subject without you saying either "I didn't know that," or "I never thought of that." Undoubtedly, both of those more than once. And isn't that the minimum you need from a president? 'Cause if Trump were to become president—which I think is so unlikely that it's insane, but if he were—the powers of the world crush him. He doesn't get anything done.
I mean, Obama, a good man—I think a wonderful man who, I think, we disagree with, but a wonderful man—was completely boxed in and able to do very, very little. Clinton, who really understands the game is, I think from—this is a cynical way to think I don't like to think but—thinking cynically, Clinton is probably more dangerous than a Trump presidency because she will actually get stuff done.
GILLESPIE: What worries you the most about Hillary Clinton? What is she going to get done that really freaks your shit?
JILLETTE: I just think bigger, bigger government. I mean, Trump should not be someone we're scared of if the presidency had not gotten so big. You know, it might come down to—I don't mean to get…This is a very high schooly thing to say, but I think all the same true, you know. In the 1940s, we decided—for maybe good reason, I don't have a better idea—that because we wanted to have mutually assured destruction, one person had to be able to launch nuclear weapons. We decided that. Now that goes way beyond dictatorship.
JILLETTE: That's a horrible decision. I mean, I don't got a better one. It's a horrible decision. So, we now have one person who can actually do huge destruction to the world. I don't want to be overly dramatic and say blow up the whole world, but they could. They certainly do damage, though, and I really believe that Hillary Clinton—as much as a war monger as she is, and she will certainly be the killingest president we've had in a long time—I don't think she'd hit that button, you know.
Now, Cruz bragged about how he'd hit that button, and Trump—I don't think he really bragged, he mentioned it. But I can just see him, if someone questioned his authority in the right way, I can see him just saying… *motions hitting a button*
I mean, can you? Am I crazy talking?
GILLESPIE: No! I mean, can I just ask is the rise of Trump, as you were talking about, and Sanders in his own way—these were independents who took over these old parties that are dying. Is it kind of great, though, that he is probably going to destroy the Republican Party or force it to change what it stands for?
JILLETTE: Yes! Yes! I mean, probably if you and I were having this discussion in ten years, I think we will look back on what Trump…what's happening with Trump right now as completely good. I think it'll be the best thing that could ever happen to libertarians. I mean, it's beyond—
GILLESPIE: It already is.
JILLETTE: It's beyond good.
GILLESPIE: And Clinton is also helping. I mean…Now, I know you've said if your vote is going to matter, you think it is, you're going to vote for Hillary, you'll put a Hillary sticker on your car.
GILLESPIE: But, your heart is with Gary Johnson or with the libertarians.
JILLETTE: Yes, and I also have what I wanted out of my presidential candidates, I will also give to myself: the ability to change my mind. I will be supporting Gary Johnson all the way. I think one of the problems…I talked to a guy in L.A., out pitching a show or something, but you know a guy who has a lot of money and who you would, who you would typecast as a liberal like this. *snaps*
And he said, and maybe I'm missing a joke or I am missing the irony but I don't think I was…I think I usually know a joke when it bites me in the ass. He said, "Oh, I'm supporting Trump because I want to watch it burn."
JILLETTE: I think there's a lot of that. I mean, anybody in the inteligencia who is supporting Trump is supporting him to watch him burn. I don't think any of them believe he will fix anything. But, you know…I believe that if I hadn't sat in a room with Trump for a long time, I might have a more accurate assessment of this. I might be confused by the fact that…Not that guy! No, not—No, what are you—No! No! No!
And I also feel a little bit, you know…My friends talk to me, and they start talking about Trump, and I say, "However bad you think he is, he's worse! I mean, you don't have the intelligence or the imagination." And I say this all within the box. This is a story that is so important to me, you know…Al Franken. I worked with on Saturday Night Live. And we weren't "friends" friends, but I was over at his house a couple of times, you know. I probably knew him personally a little better than I know you. I mean, we're acquaintances but never, never talked for hours. And when Al Franken was running for the Senate, he wrote me an email and said, "Would you support me and would you do a few little things for me to be Senator?" And I wrote back and said, "You know, Al. I liked working with you. You're a good guy, but I disagree with a lot. I'm a libertarian. I can't in good conscience support you. I really don't want you to win. As much as I like you, I disagree." And he wrote back and said, "Well, it's good that you are a libertarian because your ideas will never be tested. But thanks a lot, and hope we cross paths again." And since then, I've bumped into him, "Hello! How are you?"
When Donald Trump was running, I was asked—I believe the first person that asked was Lawrence O'Donnell, who asked me, "You were around Trump? What do you think of his…?" And I said, "You know, I kind of liked him. I thought he was good in the show. I think he has a lot of skill sets for the show, and I think he's a good person to some level. I mean, he's not my favorite person to hang out…But I do not want him to be president. I do not agree with him on everything. I believe he's wrong on everything." Almost precisely what I sent to Al Franken. And his reaction was to start tweeting out how my magic show was awful.
GILLESPIE: Yes, yes. *laughs*
JILLETTE: Terrible magic show. And it made me think, you know…And actually, there's video that is interesting, I think—I'm not interested in it now, but I think I might be in a few years—I'm on Opie and Jimmy's Show on Sirius when the tweet from Donald Trump comes in. So, I have two cameras on me and a mike in front of me the moment I read a presidential candidate attacking me. And my reaction is just…Yeah, that's a reaction I see happening, but we are supposed to be better than that. We want to—And I just kept fantasizing that, you know, you just—I couldn't think, and you're much more—I don't mean to damn with faint praise, but you're much more of a historian than I am.
JILLETTE: Do you have an example in American history of a serious political candidate attacking a trivial personality? Do you have like Lincoln going, "Four score and seven years ago, I saw this magician who really sucked."
GILLESPIE: Or maybe he slagged John Wilkes Booth.
JILLETTE: Well, yes, of course!
GILLESPIE: That's the beginning of it.
JILLETTE: But you know, there—
GILLESPIE: No. But then you responded very nicely.
GILLESPIE: You tweeted back like, "Well, I'm sorry you missed—you couldn't make it to the show."
GILLESPIE: So are you, are you worried about the future? And I—when I think about you and, this has to be—it could be 30 years ago—you were on Politically Incorrect I think when it was still on Comedy Central. The panel was talking about how we are running out of aluminum and this was a big problem, and you said, "You know what? It's not a problem because when we run out of aluminum, we've ran out of tin and made cans out of aluminum and we'll make them out of something else or won't need cans." And you're like a super-optimist in this sense.
JILLETTE: Surely. Crazy optimist.
GILLESPIE: Are you worried about the future in a way? I mean, you have two kids. Do you think they are going to end up in a world if it's Hillary or it's Trump, you know, or other people—like is this a time to be worried about the future?
JILLETTE: I mean, I would really like our president to go to another branch of government before killing people overseas. That was a big mistake, and kind of letting that slide more and more and more, and letting it really slide under George W. Bush, and then really slide under Obama, is going to bite us in the ass as heavily with Hillary Clinton as it possibly could. You get that…We're now at that those two levels you jump back and forth on. One person killed overseas in my name is a tragedy. You've got to say that. That having been said—you can't shrug it off—but that having been said, I don't think that things will get horribly worse with either one as president.
I mean, I want to be for, because that's what you do, sitting around with the coffee with your friends, you want to get apocalyptical, and "I can't believe how terrible this is." And these may be! These may be demonstrably the two worst candidates we've had in history. I mean, in terms of what the American people think about them. Has there ever been…?
JILLETTE: It doesn't seem like you should be able to run for president with over 50 percent disapproval, you know.
JILLETTE: And I also—people have argued with me on this and could be right but…The other thing that is so odd is anyone who knows Obama is an Obama supporter. If you meet Obama, even if you disagree with him, you go, "Wow, that's a good guy!" I think anybody who meets Bill Clinton goes, "That's a great guy! I loved hanging out with him." Certainly true for Jimmy Carter. Certainly true for Ford, you know. Certainly true for LBJ. Certainly true for John F. Kennedy. We've had in our history one president who people who knew him personally didn't like him, and that was Nixon.
JILLETTE: And now we have—I know people who give a metric shit ton of money to Hillary Clinton. They give her money! They're supporting her! And these are guys who are giving her enough money that they could hang out with her. They give enough money they could hang out with Bill Clinton and did, and liked him, and they go, "Ah, I just…I can't stand to be around her." *laughs*
GILLESPIE: Well, here's—
JILLETTE: And Trump, there's nobody who knows him well. I mean, there's his family and so on who's supporting.
GILLESPIE: You know, are they demystifying politics in a way? And like, one of the themes I see and—I think heard from you—but one of the themes in your work—in Penn and Teller's work as well as your own stuff—is you like to demystify, you know, the world and why things happen the way they do or how they might happen differently. Do you think people like Trump and Hillary—I mean, they are so despised that they force us to look at the mechanics of power and how people rise to power, that they might demystify some of the things we've taken for granted? "Well, yeah, we'll just let the president kill whoever they want, we don't have to do anything." I mean, maybe they will force us to—
JILLETTE: I don't know, I mean that would be nice…I just wish…Also, you know, one of the interesting things about Gary Johnson is that—when it hits you, it's so remarkable—is he doesn't preach fear.
JILLETTE: You can't find Gary Johnson saying, "You know, if you don't vote for me, it's the end of the world." You know? "You don't vote for me, things will be okay. I think I can make them a little better." Which is kind of what politics should be, right? I mean, when you've got slogans like, you know…"Make America Great Again," I mean, that is such an unpleasant slogan on so many levels. And I don't even know what Hillary's is, but…"Working together for me." *laughs*
GILLESPIE: Well, talk—let's talk a little bit about this kind of demystification process you do in your work. Earlier this year, you released Director's Cut, which is a crowd-funded movie about a crowd-funded movie. The movie that you did before that, a documentary that you helped produce, Tim's Vermeer, which is about how did Vermeer do this stuff and can we kind of reverse engineer to paint a Vermeer, and its demystifying, you know, how he did it, and Vermeer is particularly interesting since he probably used a camera obscure and all that stuff.
JILLETTE: Well, no, but okay. *laughs*
GILLESPIE: OK, we'll get into that into a different conversation, and then the third season of the show Fool Us, which is about magic, like how do you do it, and it's also great because you guys love to be fooled.
JILLETTE: Love it.
GILLESPIE: But it's all about, you know, kind of showing, "Okay, this is how it's done." Where does that impulse come from in you?
JILLETTE: It comes…I tell the story over and over again of seeing Kreskin and thinking his mental powers were real, and wanting to see that as science, and how much that upset me as a 12-year-old or whatever age I was. And…But you go through a period when you're 16, 17, 18 when truth really obsesses everybody, and then I think you are kind of, sort of grow out of it, and I didn't. I'm really…It really remains of complete interest to me because you get more sophisticated. I know truth is not some magic diamond bullet you can automatically have, but just because it's illusive does not mean it's unimportant, you know? And…So I do care about that and I…There's some of it that just on a…nothing to do with morality. It's just…All your detective stories is the search for some sort of truth, and there's really very few stronger positive emotions you can have than the "A-ha!" That feeling of discovery of understanding something. And what detective stories give you is a false "A-ha!" They make you think you've figured something out but you haven't.
GILLESPIE: Right. And of course—I guess it's not a detective story, but your novel Sock is also kind of like this.
GILLESPIE: Or an attempt to get like that, yeah.
JILLETTE: And it's a really nice form. It's the short story form, you know. It's a really nice form that I like, and I do also believe that we all are working together to try to ascertain what this world is that we live in. You know? And working together, and I get very, very bothered—I'm not bothered at all by people being wrong because I think on absolutely everything, I'm wrong. You know?
GILLESPIE: Mmhmm, right.
JILLETTE: I'm fine with people being wrong. I am…I have such a naïve point of view to almost not believing it that people can have information and represent the opposite of that. I just find that so appalling and, in a certain way, fascinating. And so, it's not so much demystification as it is just, "How can we figure this out a little better? How can we get to that?" And then when someone comes along that's actually giving—and I'm one of these people, you know I remember…The story the Amazing Randi had in Flim-Flam!, when somebody—and I think they took over that…TM people, the Maharishi took over that town. Iowa? Is it Iowa?
GILLESPIE: Umm, yes. Yeah.
JILLETTE: And they announced that the crime rates had gone down this enormous amount, and Randi was sitting there looking like—I think this is the kind of thing you guys do, too—going, "Well, they say rime rates gone down. There might be an angle on this." It might be that so many of these people have moved in that it's thrown of the demographic. It might be that there doing self-policing. And he spent a few days on this, and then he called the police chief of the town, and the police chief says, "No, the crime hasn't gone down." *laughs*
JILLETTE: And that's the trick I always fall into, the trap I fall into is I always think, you know…A local entertainer here just announced, crazily, he was making, like, $70 million a year, and we're sitting around going, "How could he be doing that?" And then finally someone just said, "He's lying. That's how he's doing that." You try to say, "He's counting the absolute gross, what he could be making if every seat was sold." No, he's not! The crime rates just didn't go down. And that kind of stuff…I always think there is a finesse or some sort of…"Oh, there was a little bit of…There was clever wording there." I'm always thinking there's weasels that are doing these little sliding things. And sometimes, it's just out not lying. So what I'm not good at is the out not lying stuff, you know. Stuff like Vermeer where there's really no lie made. It's just we've gone down the garden path. I'm fascinated by. But somebody who just says, "Oh, no, no! It's just that." *laughs*
GILLESPIE: No. So, well, you know—there's a real generosity of spirit in that, of trying to ascertain truth and share it publicly, and also showing the steps. I mean, I've seen your act multiple times, and, you know, one of the things that is great is when you show how things are done, and it's more complicated than that. But in Presto! —I mean this is like Ben Franklin's autobiography: How I made my way in the world, but how I made, you know, a third of myself disappear, right?
JILLETTE: *laughs* Yeah.
GILLESPIE: Talk a little bit about that. Like, what—You know, what motivated you to do that, or motivated you—I mean, I'm sure you had started weight loss for a long time, but this time you saw it all the way through.
JILLETTE: Yeah, you know, I had always been…There's so much to say about this. I have, I believe, the strongest disclaimer ever at the beginning of this book. Only a few, you know…What I essentially say is, "If you take medical advice from a Vegas magician, you're an asshole." *laughs*
GILLESPIE: *laughs* Actually, you—I don't know if this is worst. You say: "If you take medical advice from a juggler, you're an asshole."
JILLETTE: Right, right. I have never been asked to write a book before. The books that I have written when they cover atheism and libertarianism and so on are things I have really wanted to write. When I started dropping weight really, really fast—which was just a side effect. What I really did was getting healthy really, really fast. People, my friends plus people on the streets, said, "Tell me how you did this? I'm into this." And my answer would always be, "I don't know. I'm not a scientist." You know? Only 600 people have been through this. We have gotten any control groups. It's…you know. We know, we know that half of what I'm doing is bullshit and accomplishing nothing, but we don't know which half.
JILLETTE: And we don't know where it is.
GILLESPIE: And this—I mean, you're on the nutritarian diet, correct?
JILLETTE: Yeah, pretty much.
GILLESPIE: Can you just explain that briefly?
JILLETTE: I do pretty much no animal products. I don't like to use the word vegan because vegan has a lot of political…But no animal products, and no refined grains. You notice there is no mention of no GMO. No mention of organic. Although all that stop overlaps, not to me. No animal products, no refined grains and then extremely low salt, sugar and oil. There's all this stuff that says olive oil is really good for you and stuff. All that stuff gets thrown out. You get plenty of oil, salt, sugar. If you want none of it, you'll get plenty. That's what I eat. And then every couple of weeks, I go out with friends or something and eat what I used to eat, which is remarkable because I had to promise myself that because I thought I was giving up something, but now there's no cravings, no desire. I mean, I can sit around with people eating cheeseburgers and pizza, and it means nothing because you change your microbiome maybe, but that's what a lot of people thing. And you also change your tastes.
You know, your tastes, it's…I make a lot of comparisons to music, you know. I mean, you bang out that three-chord rock n' roll and you absolutely love it, and then at some point in your life you'll listen to a little bit of—maybe you'll get there by Zappa or however you get there—you get to Miles and you get to Stravinsky and you get to Sun Ra, and all of a sudden you realize, well, that four-on-the-floor with three chords is really, really nice, and the guy screaming about fucking is real nice, but there's all this other stuff out there. And I've been eating those same flavors: salt, sugar, and fat. I've been eating for, you know, sixty years, and all of a sudden I realized, "Wow! There's actually a taste to corn besides salt and butter. There's actually all this."
JILLETTE: And it's so easy when you are unhealthy to lie to yourself. Everybody helps you, you know. Not to there—I'm not blaming anybody else, but we have—it's very easy to find an excuse to eat that cheeseburger that night. And I also don't believe anything anyone says in the hospital, right around when they come, or on New Year's Eve.
JILLETTE: I don't believe anything anyone—that's about a time where we're all lying all the time to everybody. So I didn't make some sort of big problem—I was in the hospital with high blood pressure, but I made no big declaration on what I was going to do. And to me—and I don't know…You'll find that this book…There's never been, I don't believe, a weight loss book with more first person singular in it. There's almost no second person. I don't tell other people what to do for moral and artistic reasons on this because I don't know. But if your question is, "What do you think you did?" I answer that completely and thoroughly. But for me, and this is so simple now but so hard then…I've never been proud of anything easy. I mean, you think about it, very few people are. People brag about climbing Everest. They don't brag about climbing up a hill with the small incline and nice grassy walk. And every diet I tried, what I call The New York Times grown-up diets, were "If you eat just the way you're eating, just a little bit of portion control and be a little careful on this and why not be vegan 'til six, and only eat meat at night. And why not do this?" It won't change your life at all.
And all of a sudden, you know, like a diamond bullet, I went, "I never enjoyed anything that never changed my life at all." I mean, isn't that what life is changing it? I mean, I didn't learn to play upright bass bebop because someone said to me, "You know, you can learn this without doing anything. Just take what you normal do in the day and kind of slide a bass string under it." No! You want to play until your fingers bleed, and just so you can look at them and see them bleed. Even if you're not getting better, it's the effort that's the fun of it.
And in magic, Teller and I, we don't need any new material. We have outrun the clock. We have five and a half hours of material and how many years to live. Couple decades, if we're lucky, to be working. We're not going to use up that material. The audiences in Vegas rotate. We do two new tricks simply because we like to do new tricks, and we choose the new tricks based on how hard they are. And believe me, we don't tick off the easy ones.
GILLESPIE: You know, is—
JILLETTE: So it was hard!
GILLESPIE: Is that impulse to remake yourself or to challenge yourself—Is that a…Is it just a personality temperament you're born with or is it an ideological commitment almost, or is it, you know, an act of will, or is it just who you are?
JILLETTE: I, I, I, you know…You can disguise the nature/nurture question in any way you want and I can't answer it. But, I mean…he is not busy being born is busy dying.
GILLESPIE: Let me—and this is my final topic—I did not realize this about you because I had read poorly in your life story, but Bob Dylan, who you just quoted, is one of your heroes.
GILLESPIE: Why is Bob Dylan one of your heroes…and how devastated will you be when he, and he will eventually, when he passes like Bowie or Prince or whatever?
JILLETTE: I've got to tell you, you know, I was good friends with Lou [Reed], and losing Lou was really, really hard. The one that snuck up on me, and, you know, you say Bob Dylan will die, and I do know that. I didn't know George Carlin would.
JILLETTE: I just didn't know it. None of us were ready for that, you know. I think we're more ready for Lou Reed, but I mean…George was just okay, well he'll be going. I'll have to deal with his death sometime, but it won't be for a long time. I've been a fan of a lot of people, and you…I, you know…I hate it that we have this culture that tries to turn everyone into fans and then at the same ridicules them. We use the phrase "fanboy." And people will come up and say, "If feel like such an asshole, but I'm a big fan of yours." And you go, "Don't do that." You know, I am proudly a hardcore fan. The time I met Lou Reed, I was president of the Lou Reed Fan Club. And he told me I had to stop that if we were going to be friends. It was too creepy, which is true. You can't do that.
GILLESPIE: What did you like about Lou Reed, and then we'll get to Dylan.
JILLETTE: I love the blending of levels.
JILLETTE: Night of the Living Dead, George Romero's first movie…His description of it, not the ads for it, nothing else, was—and I'm not going to get this word for word, so forgive me, but it'll be close—he said, "Night of the Living Dead is what happens to America when a truly radical political forum takes over."
*claps* Pow! That's everything. Making a monster moving with intellectual content is the best for me. Now, The Velvet Underground were this dirt-dumb, banging punk with an Aaron Copland scholar playing viola over it, and with Delmore Schwartz short story-type lyrics all kind of mixed together. That Warhol thing of "Is this really stupid, or is this really smart?" That mixing I am a complete and utter sucker for. So, Lou Reed having this intellectual college guy at the same time this motorcycle boots guy, you know…The best example of this—and unfortunately the band doesn't play it out—the best example is a stupid rock band named Steppenwolf.
GILLESPIE: Right. Sure, sure.
JILLETTE: Oh, you know! I wish they had done a little more. I mean, I guess you don't have to do much more than "Born to Be Wild" and—
GILLESPIE: "Magic Carpet Ride."
JILLETTE: "Magic Carpet Ride."
GILLESPIE: "Monster," is, which—for those of you will hopefully never hear it—
GILLESPIE: —is an attack on America by a Canadian band. But, yes.
JILLETTE: So, Lou Reed really had that, but Dylan, you know…I look back on the music you listen to, and you can't really trust your musical taste at all three years plus or minus your first blowjob. That information is not valid. So, you've got to tell me when you first had sex, and then tell me the music you liked from three years before and three years after, and you're not allowed to talk about that.
GILLESPIE: *laughs* Right.
JILLETTE: You're not allowed to, because maybe that song was playing during and it's nailed—Different thing happening. But I look back at the music when you're really forming. So many of the bands get worse. And I shouldn't say this, but I'm going to…The Beatles are still a very good band, but there not as good as I thought they were in '68 or '69. Really good stuff, I mean "Hey Jude" and "Revolution" is wonderful stuff there. I'm not in any way putting them down, but they're coming down a little bit. Not a shitty band, but little bit. Still probably the best bad? Maybe, but a little bit down.
But Dylan, you go back to Blonde on Blonde…and it's better now? But that's not the surprising thing. If you and I were sitting talking after Blood on the Tracks came out, you know? Blood on the Tracks comes out, we're sitting there talking, and then you say to me, "And you know something? This guy will do a better record than this in 2005." How high are you, Nick? *laughs*
JILLETTE: The fact that you can see Paul McCartney, and he does a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful show. It's full of hits. He hits every note. The band is hot. The band is tight. It's exactly the show you've expected him to do if you guessed from 1970 what he'd be doing. All these fireworks on "Live and Let Die." Sure they're there. Dylan? I defy you to say what he'll be doing six months from now. He's just driven by pure art.
You know, his son said to me—and I…you have to be very carefully to not break confidences, but I don't think I am here—his son said to me, "There is no doubt that if my dad had never made it, if he was sitting on the side of the sidewalk with his guitar and a hat out in front of him, he would be doing precisely doing the same songs. His whole career would be exactly the same."
Now, there is certainly hyperbole in that, but it's kind of, sort of true. And I've also found out that—I didn't know this. I don't know how I didn't know this—but Christopher Hitchens…Salman Rushdie—if that's enough name dropping in the one sentence—Salman Rushdie told me that Christopher Hitchens used to play this game where you could name any line from any Dylan song, any time in his career—including the Christian period—and Hitchens would give you the next line.
JILLETTE: And I went, "Really? How come I didn't know that when he was alive." And I found out that Salman Rushdie…His whole world is Dylan, you know. And I really think if, if we have anybody who's Shakespeare in our time, it's Dylan, and he just speaks to me more and more, and he once said in an interview that the purpose of art was to inspire, and when you see a Dylan show…You would think he's so good, you know—if you go see a jazz cat who's so good playing bass, you can leave that show going, "Why even pick up a bass again?" But for some reason—and I'm not the only one that feels this—at the end of the Dylan show, art just seems so good. I want to go write a play, or write a novel. I'll stay up all night and write a song. And you don't care that it's not as good.
The other thing that I love about Dylan is he is a freak, not a cheerleader. When you go see Springsteen, it's all this inclusive stuff, you know? Don't we all love girls and cars, and don't we all have an economic downturn? And don't we all want justice? And we're all here, and "Yeah!" and "Whew!" and "Let's go!" it's this feeling of comradery. The whole show, everybody's Bruce Springsteen, and you might want to make comparisons between Springsteen and Dylan, and I think you would be completely wrong because, even if they both have gravely voices and both come from the same traditions, he's a cheerleader, and that's good. There's nothing wrong with that, but Dylan just stands there and says, "I am speaking for me. Maybe some of this is true for you to. I don't know. But I'm digging so deep." All of his mining, you know, is going towards his heart and deeper into his brain. He makes no attempt, that I can tell, to say, "Oh yeah, this is gonna kill 'em. This is what they'll like."
JILLETTE: And that's where universality has to live. You can't be universal if you're trying to please other people. You can only be universal if you have so clearly who you are, and Dylan has no idea who he is, but he's still searching and he's sharing that process with us. And, you know, people tell me, you know, "You're such a Dylan nut. What album should I listen to?" And I always tell them, "Stay with the 21st century. You don't even need to go before that." Who else? *laughs*
GILLESPIE: And I would throw in Chronicles as probably the most—I think it's the most fully realized beat prose. It's better than Kerouac.
GILLESPIE: It's better, and that's, like a whole other genre for him. That is awesome. Thank you, as I can consider myself a Dylan nut, and you have given me new appreciate for him.
JILLETTE: Did you know that about Hitchens?
GILLESPIE: I did not. I did not, and I wish I had because—
JILLETTE: The people that I know and read about who are really literary…They will always come up with Shakespeare, Burns, Dylan. You know? And it actually—this shows what a bad education I had—after the past few months, I have really been going through this Shakespeare stuff going, "Wait a minute!" You know what I mean?
GILLESPIE: He's the Dylan of his time.
JILLETTE: I guess, you know, the Dylan for all time. I guess he really is the best. I should know about him.
GILLESPIE: Well, we will leave it there, and we will also leave people knowing about Presto!—your latest book—How I Made More Than 100 Pounds Magically Disappear and Other Big Fat Tales.
JILLETTE: Yeah, and you'll also find libertarian stuff in there.
GILLESPIE: All right. Well, you know, I think the way you were talking about Dylan and the search for both truth but also self-recreation and—not even invention as much as it is a search—and I find that very consistent with the kind of libertarian ethos, so thank you for that.
JILLETTE: Feel my Johnson.
GILLESPIE: *laughs* Well, we will leave it there. The man is Penn Jillette. The latest book is Presto! Thanks so much for talking with us.
JILLETTE: Oh, it was such a pleasure, man.